Fire on the Island

That time one-fifth of the Island caught fire.


Just after lunch on April 26, 1900, Capt. Benjamin C. Cromwell and his men were burning piles of brush on his farm on the outskirts of Edgartown. “As the last pile was fired,” reported the Boston Globe, “the wind came with hurricane force, and lifted the burning mass high into the air, where it seemed to burst, throwing the embers in all directions. So sudden was the outburst of flame and smoke that the horses which were plowing a short distance away were scorched, and were in danger of being overcome. The plow was destroyed in the furrow, and with lightning fury, the fire spread across the ‘Plains.’”

Up until the past half-century or so, vast forest fires tore across this Island on a terrifyingly regular basis. They were wildfires larger by magnitudes than anything we have seen on the island for more than 50 years. Ten fires between 1875 and 1946, for instance, were each larger than the entire town of Tisbury — hellish infernos measured not in acres but in square miles. 

That 1900 blaze, which the Fall River Daily Globe described as “furious,” would destroy an estimated 5,000 acres. A northern gale was blowing, they reported, and “the plains are covered with brush oaks, which were as dry as tinder.” Despite the best efforts of more than 200 volunteer firefighters, the fire burned completely out of control, and over the next two days, the blaze spread all the way to West Tisbury. Ariel Scott’s barn and outbuildings burned down, and he lost his wagon and a flock of hens. The barns of two more nearby farms burned down next, and William Vincent lost his hay tools and mowing machine. Backfires were lit, and on the third day, the flames were finally put under control. “BLACKENED WASTE” read the headline of the Boston Globe, which described a trail of devastation six miles long and four miles wide.

Most of these massive fires were in the central and southern parts of the Island — the Vineyard’s dry, scrubby plains, almost completely uninhabited at that time. It was only by very good fortune that none of our villages were affected. 

Charcoal found in archeological digs suggest that widespread wildfires have been a regular occurrence in our forests for thousands of years. In his book “Historical Influences on the Landscape of Martha’s Vineyard,” author David Foster notes that prehistoric charcoal-to-pollen ratios in dig samples are unusually high in our Island’s interior, compared with the rest of New England, and decline after European settlement in the 17th century. He concludes that fire activity was even higher before the arrival of clear-cutting Europeans, and cites further evidence suggesting that those early fires, like the later fires, were mostly human-ignited.

A vast fire in April 1892 began when someone burning rubbish in North Tisbury lost control of the fire. Fanned by a brisk west wind, it swept the plains all the way to Lagoon Heights in Oak Bluffs and south into Edgartown, burning an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 acres.

In July 1909, a blaze began in the woods near the state’s heath hen preserve, in what would soon become our State Forest. A strong breeze spread the flames, and soon a five- by three-mile swath of our central plains was afire. Hundreds of young heath hens were killed in what was the species’ last breeding ground on Earth. The fire’s origin was a mystery, but it “may have started as the result of a match carelessly thrown into the dry bushes,” according to the Fall River Daily Evening News. Five hundred firefighters were employed, and a long line of backfires set; nevertheless the blaze leveled 10,000 acres, but only a single barn. 

Historian Charles Banks wrote in 1911, “Oaks, great and small, are the principal constituents of our forests, and the great plain land is a dense jungle of the ‘scrub oak’ which thrives despite repeated devastating fires covering large areas.” Bob Woodruff of the Friends of Manuel F. Correllus State Forest adds, “The ‘Great Plains’ is in fact populated with hundreds of fire-adapted and fire-evolved species of plants and insects, with over 60 state or federally listed species recorded in the Correllus State Forest.” Tom Chase of the Nature Conservancy adds, “The sandplains are — obviously — sandy, and therefore drought-prone and fire-prone. And the vegetation that naturally grows on it is highly flammable and fire-adapted. It needs to burn, but under controlled conditions, just as the Wampanoag did for countless generations.”

The largest Island fire in recorded history occurred in May 1916. The smoke from what the Fall River News called the “Great Woods Fire” was visible as far away as Rhode Island. A tract of woods, grass fields, and cranberry bogs in a strip nine miles long and five miles wide was burned. Some 12,000 acres, or more than 18 square miles — nearly one-fifth of the Island — was incinerated in two days. 

The Fall River paper called that 1916 blaze, started in West Tisbury, “the worst forest fire that Martha’s Vineyard ever experienced … Practically every man on the south end of the Island was out at 7 o’clock yesterday morning, fighting to save the village” of Edgartown, the paper reported, which “was probably spared by a change in the wind.” Oak Bluffs’ chemical fire-fighting equipment was deployed, backfires lit, shovel brigades formed, and teams of horses employed to plow wide furrows ahead of the blaze. “The Edgartown schools were closed yesterday to allow the pupils to give their services in any way needed in fighting the fire.

“Hundreds of rabbits were overtaken by the racing blaze,” continued the Fall River paper, but even more devastating was the damage, once again, to the heath hens. The endangered birds “would fly high above the flames, circle once or twice, and then dive back again into the fire, to be instantly killed.” A 1927 article in American Forests magazine reported that of the 2,000 specimens residing on the Island before the 1916 fire, only 150 survivors could be counted afterward. Incredibly, only one house, belonging to Henry Cleveland, was lost.

A network of firebreaks was added to the State Forest starting in the late 1920s, but the monstrous wildfires continued unabated in our interior for decades afterward. Other massive fires occurred in 1926 (starting in Katama and burning well into the plains), 1927, 1929 (which the Boston Globe described as a “most spectacular fire” moving “at terrific speed”), 1930, and 1946. In September 1948, an underground fire in the Edgartown dump erupted, and spread to cover a reported four square miles of drought-parched scrub. The acrid smoke from the burning pitch pines billowed into Edgartown, and columns of black smoke were visible as far away as Boston Harbor. It took 500 volunteers to tame the blaze and stop it from sweeping into Edgartown.

Between 1900 and 1940, it can be conservatively estimated that major fires burned more than 68,000 acres on the Island. (By comparison, the Vineyard comprises less than 62,000 acres of land in total.) Foster’s book includes a sobering list of historical fires compiled by Steve Vancour, Chase, and Foster.

Since the 1950s, massive wildfires on the Island have notably diminished in size and frequency; we haven’t had a fire close to these magnitudes since a 1965 blaze burned 1,200 acres from the plains to Katama. Dave Celino, chief fire warden at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), chalks up this reprieve to a change in weather patterns since the 1950s, together with the development of modern fire suppression technology, training, and a good bit of luck. His office works with our local fire departments and the State Forest staff to facilitate prescribed burnings and mowings to lower the fuel load on public lands, with the goal of restoring a fire-resilient landscape. But “at some point, history will repeat itself,” he cautions. Most recently, the drought of 2016 caused a lot of professionals to lose sleep. “We really dodged the bullet with the moderate to-extreme drought. It was knocking on our doorstep in 2016.” Celino concludes, “We want to be prepared for it as best we can.”